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Are we about to see the return of pro-life Democrats?

Marchers at the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, January 21, 2022. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

If a text leaked to Politico is to be believed, the Supreme Could be mere weeks away from overturning both Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey, the two decisions which enshrine the “right” to end the lives of unborn children in national constitutional law.

The return of the most divisive issue in US politics to the state level is likely to usher in a new era of political engagement outside of Washington — and it could bring with it a new debate on the issue within political parties themselves.

For decades, both political parties reflected the national spectrum of opinion on abortion. Pro-abortion Republicans were not unheard of (and actually are still not unheard of), and pro-life Democrats were part of a sizable coalition of social and religious conservatives with their party.

But, over successive election cycles since the 1990s, the parties have effectively polarized on the issue, creating a political binary in which Republicans pitch themselves as institutionally opposed to abortion and Democrats commit to its total protection — at least at the national level.

Pro-life Democrats, like former Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski, were, for 20 years, targeted for repeated primary challenges, and gradually excised from office. Other national-level Democrats, like President Joe Biden, abandoned previously “moderate” positions, like opposing federal funding for abortion procedures, as party support came to require they wholly endorse the project of enshrining “the full scope” of Roe v Wade in federal law.

During the 2020 primary campaign, various Democratic candidates, including Biden, were asked if there was any place in the party for pro-life members. Different candidates couched their answers to different degrees, but all the responses were variations on the word “no.”

State level exceptions to this rule, like Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, have been largely treated as embarrassing aberrations within their party — and tolerated to the extent that opposition to abortion in that state is so broad that a pro-abortion candidate might simply not be viable, but with the clear understanding that they are not welcome at the national level of the party.

But is Edwards’ exception about to become a more accepted rule for state-wide Democratic parties?

Absolute support for, or opposition to abortion has come to define both parties at the federal level, in large part because of the Supreme Court’s ownership of the issue.

At the state level, with Louisiana being one of a few exceptions, the local party and candidates have largely adopted the national platform as a necessity for personal advancement and for access to central party campaign funds. Even in otherwise culturally pro-life states, state level candidates rarely have to campaign on their abortion views for the simple reason that it has been a matter of settled federal law for so long. That would change in a post Roe world.

Should the court return the regulation of abortion to the states, more than a dozen of which have so-called trigger laws in place to ban the practice immediately, party officials will have to decide if holding to an absolutist pro-abortion test for candidates is workable — or if it would mean alienating swaths of voters whose views on abortion have not previously figured into the state-level political calculus, and perhaps locking the party out of statewide office.

Those states with a settled pro-life consensus could begin incubating a new generation of pro-life Democratic candidates (and voters) who could force themselves into the national conversation in perhaps less time than it took to purge them from the party’s ranks in the first place.

Much has been written over the last two election cycles about a political realignment underway in the United States, with many nothing shifts in what both parties have traditionally considered their own policy orthodoxies.

With “conservatives” increasingly comfortable with government spending policies more often associated with the left, and “liberals” often attracting the support of corporate interests, abortion has provided one of the few fixed points in an otherwise shifting political landscape.

If that changes, following a Supreme Court ruling and a newly charged state-level political process, it could mean an even more fluid conversation within political parties, one in which pro-life voices could, for the first time in decades, speak from a position of strength.

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